In Jonathan Alter’s new book, “The Promise,” he explains why issues so essential to the Democratic base such as labor law reform, immigration reform and gay rights were sidetracked in favor of “top tier” issues: the stimulus, the budget and health care reform:
The “No Distractions” theme would be critical to shaping 2009. It meant that divisive issues requiring the approval of Congress, like comprehensive immigration reform, the Employee Free Choice Act (a priority of organized labor, better known as “card check” that would make it easier for unions to organize) and repealing the ban on gays in the military would all be set aside temporarily while Democrats focused on Obama’s first-tier agenda. Those priorities that made the cut for 2009 would be advanced relentlessly. Instead of hoarding their political capital, Rahm said, they would leverage the capital earned on early wins to build more for the tougher struggles down the road.
In the early stages, gay, immigrant and labor groups hoped that keeping mum on their issues and helping to pass the administration’s top-tier priorities would lead to victory on their issues. These groups followed that strategy despite the howls from their own members – many of whom insisted the administration was merely delaying bringing up their issues in hopes of killing the politically risky debates altogether.
After health care began to flounder, it became clear that none of these groups’ issues would be advanced by the president. The president remained mum on these topics and refused to say anything about them unless prodded by a town hall questioner. The deafening silence from the White House on issues essential to these three core Democratic constituencies made it clear that the White House was not investing political capital in passing those reforms.
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In the summer of 2009, it looked as though immigration reform, gay rights and labor law reform were going nowhere. Each of the groups most closely concerned has chosen very different strategies in response to the administration’s evident reluctance to act on their essential concerns.
Lt. Dan Choi, one of the leaders of the LGBT movement, chained himself to the White House fence in protest. LGBT activists heckled the president at every town hall and made it embarrassing for him to go back on his word to repeal don’t ask, don’t tell. Congressman Luis Gutierrez, one of the leaders of the immigration movement, also chained himself to the fence of the White House in protest. Adopting an entirely different approach, former SEIU President Andy Stern became the most frequent visitor to the White House – visiting over 50 times.
Well, that’s all Stern and the labor movement got: a bunch of invitations to the White House. Through its craving to be warmly received inside the White House, labor has been left out in the cold politically. No one is even talking about executive orders that would make it illegal for federal contractors to union bust, let alone the promised Employee Free Choice Act.
The LGBT movement, which had heckled the president at every turn, is getting what they want. They are getting a repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell. They created the pressure which forced Obama to grant same sex benefits for federal employees and new rights for same sex partners. In the process, they have created a favorable political climate that led to the passage of marriage equality in a half dozen states.
Immigration activists – who at first were reluctant to be critical of the White House for its inaction on immigration policy – have recently become far more vocal about what they require from the president. Recently, they even protested his visit with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. While some in White House don’t want to take on the sensitive topic of immigration in an election year, immigration activists have been able to keep that topic alive through their fierce activism. They have forced President Obama to denounce the Arizona law on several occasions. Furthermore, it’s expected that, as a result of immigration activism, the Obama administration’s Department of Justice will announce a legal challenge to Arizona’s new law. President Obama’s planned speech on immigration reform shows that he is willing to spend more political capital on this issue than on labor law refrom, about which he has not given a single speech.
President Obama can only stand so much heat from his own base, so he has been forced to give on immigration and LGBT rights. The heat hasn’t been hot enough from the labor movement yet for the White House to take serious action on union busting. Union busting threatens the labor movement with extinction as organized labor only represents 7 percent of private sector employees. Organized labor needs to do something to stop this now or face extinction.
When Richard Trumka took over as the head of the AFL-CIO, he said that labor had not been “aggressive enough” with Democrats in an interview with Politico. Labor took a step in the right direction by challenging Blanche Lincoln, who was against the Employee Free Choice Act. The problem, though, isn’t entirely with the Congress; a large part is with the White House, so, now, we need to take it a step further in opposing a White House that refuses to take serious action against union busting. The Obama administration could take action without Congressional approval that would bar federal contracts from going to companies that engage in union busting. However, the White House is not taking even this elemental step.
Many applauded when Obama made the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) afunctional by making two recess appointments to the NLRB. Some saw this as a great victory for labor rights. But how is asking the president to keep an existing government body functional a reform victory?
People in the labor movement cheered when they got the White House to roll back a portion of the tax on health insurance plans. Is this the kind of progressive victory we should expect in the age of Obama – getting the president to slightly tweak a highly regressive measure?
The labor movement needs to realize we are no longer in the Bush era. The labor movement should expect more from this president. Union busting needs to be wiped out or the labor movement will be wiped out. If the labor movement expects to get the White House to take on this issue, they are going to have to stand up in the ways that the LGBT and immigration movements have.
This White House has made it clear it will only take on controversial issues if it is forced to through vocal protest against the White House. Its time for labor to turn up the heat on the White House or the bosses will keep turning up the heat against the labor movement until it’s eliminated.